Category Archives: Notes on a Journey

Musings from Seattle

Vios cafe and bookshop. Coffee and the hum of conversation. The sound of flamenco guitar is colouring the tone. A screen and keys sending words out to another place. Bombs are falling somewhere else. The buying and the selling while the wells run dry.

Culture speaks in definite tones. Music shapes and colours nature. God where are we? We, we the north the south the east and the west.  The six hundred mile migration. We used to follow the seasons. One direction for two months to where the fruit is. Songs to keep us safe and to carry the know-how and the stories that connect us to where it begins.

Weather changes outside. The sun is coming through.


Tokyo Snow

I went online to check our flight to Tokyo via Frankfurt to discover our flight had been cancelled. When I called the number given, my flight was changed to an earlier one via London. A shorter stopover meant the change was a blessing in disguise. We were three. I travel alone most of the time and I enjoy the time but it is a pleasure to share the experience.

After twelve hours we landed in Japan. Our tired eyes were not long widening to the wonders of Tokyo – trees, fabric, food, people, fashion, style and atmosphere suited our sensibility.

The north island is Hokaido. There are no nuclear power stations there. There was snow. Snow lightens my spirit every time.

Oki is a native of Hokaido. A songwriter, he makes and plays the Tonkari, a five stringed instrument played by the Ainu people. They are the pre agricultural people of Japan – hunters and gatherers by tradition. Oki spoke to me about the Jomung period and people. Their roots are the roots of most Japanese. According to archeological study the Jomung lived for 10000 years without war. There is no evidence of war in their remains. The music and art reflects this deep peace.

Oki and I played in the afternoon and then went to the Onsen. They are natural spring baths enjoyed all over Japan. Men and Women go to separate places and get naked. Then there is a wash with a cloth a vessel and soap. After a good scrub it is time to sit in the hot spring water and let the minerals and heat work their goodness on the body. Some bath houses are not naturally heated but they still do well. All water is vital. It conducts the electricity in our bodies and keeps us in motion.

For breakfast we had rice, miso, fish, pickled veg, tea, eggs, toast and coffee – perfect fuel for a day walking in the snow. We visited a temple then went to a thrift shop and bought a backpack, a hat and some beautiful small things!

The concert that night was shared between Oki and me. We treated it as an encounter and that is what it was. Music never ceases to amaze me. It reflects everything in life with a logic too great for mere words.  I am glad of that.

Songs and Stories in Sitges

There is a church that looks over the sea in Sitges. I took a walk following the incline of the streets down towards the shore. By the time I got there the sun was only a reflection in the clouds. The sea always turns a page in my mind and refreshes my feeling and renews my relationship with life – the greater picture.

As long, that is, as I get in. I did. The moment of immersion is a mini loss of thought and always, for me, brings a deeper smile. A green smile.

Desi Wilkinson is here. I haven’t seen him in years. Ten years. The last time was in Washington DC…the Kennedy Center. I couldn’t get over the natural power of that area then. I got the sense that people would have gathered here way before the Europeans chose it as a place of power.

Desi is a flute player and an explorer of sound and tradition. He is playful and recognizes the importance of staying on and seeing the funny side of things and with that seeing the beauty and the point. This reunion comes through the inspired vision of Caroline Wynne who spends holidays here in Sitges. This is her third Irish Catalonian Arts Festival and my first. I am honoured to have been invited to such a beautiful town to recreate something that is a deep part of my human heritage – spontaneous song and the wonder of companionship and laughter.

Peadar Lamb enjoyed my father’s company and indeed my mother’s as well! His presence at this festival ensured the unaffected nature that is a part of what a true festival is – the willingness to stand and sing. To silence a room with the beauty of an honest tone. This is what my art is based upon.

My friend Colm reminded me that we are not city people. This culture was imposed upon us. Our nature dies with the seasons and rises with the seasons, again. Our dwellings made of wood rotted and disappeared back into the land. We don’t need great monuments of glass and stone to reassure ourselves of our intelligence and civilization. All we need is each other, the songs and stories that remind us of those who went before us and the songs and stories we tell so our memory and our accumulated wisdom will carry our children and our children’s children.

Gentle Warriors

My father was involved in work, back before my time. He was an engineer and his work took him to Lifford, Co. Donegal. I always remember his having a place in his heart for the people, culture, and landscape of Donegal. He really had a love for that part of the world. To be honest he loved the whole country – the landscape and the people. That left a huge impact on my own world view.

Wild country no matter where you find it is powerful and it reaches a place in the heart no words can truly describe. Music can. A slow air can capture a people, a place and the collective feelings of both.

Something else he showed me. His work brought him all over Ireland and he left parts of himself wherever he went. He loved to sing the old songs. Through his work in Lifford he made friends and connections with the people of Strabane. I remember stopping in Strabane as a child at night. There was a twilight feeling there that I liked. The memory is dreamlike.

I returned to Strabane two weeks ago and played at the Alley Arts Centre. After checking the room for sound, I contacted Martin Gallen, a local instrument maker from the nearby Holly Hill townland. More specifically he is an Uilleann pipe maker. The Uilleann pipes are magic but they are equally difficult to master. There is a wild beast in there that will accept only the right touch to make a melodious tone. I have decided to try my experience as a musician to take on the wild spirit of this instrument.

Martin welcomed me into his home along with his partner Leona and daughter Mara. I ate with them before my show and we laughed in the light of an early summer’s evening. His workshop is an Aladdin’s cave of wood, brass, wax, bamboo and leather among other materials. The lathe is the central piece of machinery and it is this that rounds and bores the wood to allow the air to become tone. Pipes are made up of bellows, a bag, drone pipes, regulator pipes and a chanter pipe. The chanter is the melody pipe – ‘The Singer…’

The notes are made by covering and uncovering small holes bored into the length of the wood. The drones hold a basic chord while the regulators provide various chordal possibilities. There is a lot of work in the playing of this iconic instrument!!! Martin has committed to teaching me as much as I need to know. He has asked me for the same commitment! He said he knows someone who knew my Father back in the day!

Later, Tracy McRory from Innishowen joined me onstage representing the Donegal connection. Together we explored the power of the slow air and a moment in music and soul that I will never forget. The people of Strabane and the surrounding lands made me welcome and brought out music in me that I never knew was there. It was a night of shared emotion and my father was right there in the heart of it. O Maonlai, my name, means gentle warrior. This is the name my father gave me. It was his name. It is my name now.

After the concert we went back up to Holly Hill and saw the light come up in the east. There was merriment and my father was in the heart of that, too!

As I write my son Cian is sitting his English exam. His final exams after twelve years of school. Another gentle warrior.

Ferns, Flags and Fostering Respect

‘They are talking about changing the Kiwi flag.’ I am driving back to Alice Paul’s house by the lower Hutt River. It is night and the taxi driver and I have struck up a conversation. A new flag sounds like a good idea. They say the land is very young in New Zealand or Aotorea as it is called in the Maori language. The land of the long white cloud.

Ferns grow huge here and give the place a prehistoric feel. We are on a pacific island and you can feel it. The Maori culture is woven proudly into the colonial identity of the people. We were welcomed traditionally by the festival staff and performers who were from all cultures. The ceremony was very definitely Maori. The air between the newcomers (us) and those already here (those whose land we are on) was cleaned by a song sung by a young woman. A solemn welcome and a call for respect.

As we followed her upstairs we could hear the haka and it had the energy of a wild beast. It was an invitation to engage. We sat as they stood and danced before us making it clear that we are guests here and that is to be enjoyed and respected. We responded speaking of our own ancestry and sang a song in the language of my native land. We danced. The movement came from Rian. A piece of work created by Michael Keegan Dolan and me with four other musicians and eight dancers of different ancestry. Because of the context of the ritual our moves spoke anew and had meaning. I was proud of the work we had done. Newly proud.

The oldest castle is nothing in time compared to the songs and dances of the first people. Our songs go back to beginnings and our beginnings are still alive in our songs.

Cohen and Community in Kilkenny

In Kilkenny it is reported, there are marble stones there as black as ink. Ceannas is the patron saint of Kilkenny. A limestone image of his head is at the heart of this old capitol of Ireland. Nearby you can visit a well named after him. The water there is good.

Kilkenny are the most consistent hurlers in Ireland. Hurling is at the center of the identity of the county for many. The hurl is not unlike a hockey stick except that it has a flat face and is made of ash. This, the Norman architecture, the temperament of the people and the majesty of a town allowed to shine by its own standards, gives Kilkenny a special atmosphere.

People are inventive and adventurous. The river Nore passes through and by the bridge, we noticed a magnificent cherry blossom with a young one by her side. Words only begin to capture the feeling that comes from this county. It is another way of seeing this island of ours. Through each town and county, the complexity and inherent magic of our land unfolds. Through each dialect of language, be it the recent English or the profound native Irish or Gaeilge, the musical nuance of people and place comes forth.

A man in an antiques shop was of the land and her elements. He pointed my attention toward a small carving of the resurrected Christ. It was in the window and was carved out of olive wood. It was slightly bigger than a playing card. There was a note of resonance between us as I said goodbye and thanked him for showing me such a thing – A light.

The night before we sang the songs of Leonard Cohen through Irish and felt the fire of music between us. As the man said ‘there is good’. That was Easter Monday.

Mountains and Freezing and Bears, Oh Montana!

I reached what felt like rock bottom at around five in the evening on a freezing day in Butte, Montana. Rock bottom is a bit melodramatic but I was tired, cold, homesick, and my back was in spasm.

The dressing room was chilly and I needed to rest. Eventually, as people began to arrive I decided to get out. ‘Out’ was minus 20 something degrees or so, they were saying. Not so bad when you are well wrapped up.

Traoloch picked me up at Missoula airport a few days earlier. Traoloch O’Riordain runs a course of Irish studies in the University there and they had invited me over to speak and to perform. He is a man of his land and his county is Cork but he has settled in majestic state of Montana. Native home of the Flatheads, Crow, Assiniboine, Kootenai, Salish, Kalispel, Gros Ventre and some Lakota/ Dakota.

I love winter. We don’t get a lot of snow at home in Ireland so when it comes I love it. Missoula had snow and mountains pretty much everywhere you looked. Traoloch dropped me off at the house where I would be staying and left me to unpack. We were in the rattlesnake neighbourhood. His home was just behind where I was staying so I was in good hands. We ate together later in his house with Erin his wife and their children Roisin and Seanie Bull! Watch out for bears Erin said as I left for bed later that night. We were at the foot of the mountain and all kinds of visitors are known to come and sniff around!

The drive to Butte did my back in. By the time we arrived I could not walk too well. Still, we ate pizza and had a look into an antique shop. The owner gave us some of the history of the place. How it was a playground for those who had made a fortune from mining. Many came from west Cork to Butte, Montana to mine for copper. I met a woman who had married four times. She said I looked like a Sullivan!

Getting out was important. I had been indoors most of the time since my arrival so before my show I legged it! The first thing you notice when the weather is minus is the hairs in your nose! By the time I got back indoors my beard was white.

We stayed that night in Phillipsburgh in a hunting lodge. In the morning my back was better and I decided to walk into the town. It was still dark (around 7 am) and it was quiet. I didn’t expect there to be anything open when I got to the main street but there was a corner bar and a cafe. I ate first in the cafe and had coffee after that in the corner bar. Everyone looked as I came in but the faces that greeted me were kind and curious. These were ranchers warming themselves with coffee and company. I got to talking life and death with John. He had traveled a good deal of the continent and had a grand outlook and opinion on life. We hit it off over two coffees and I made my way back renewed, and happy to be in Big Sky Country!

Sometimes no matter what the weather, the only thing that will fix you is getting out and about.

Strolling Šibenik

I took myself out of bed and out of our apartment, down the stone steps of shining white. Down to the square where men and women sat facing the cathedral drinking coffee. Out to the right and down more shining stone steps.

The footpath is modest on the shore of clear sea water. Small boats moored like parked cars to my left as I walk to where I know the beach is. To my right is a terrace bar upstairs where the night before we celebrated a night of good music. The music now is Sunday’s voices and the boats.

I could be in a novel here. It is the kind of place that evens out your thinking and could give you that holiday of a lifetime. I approached a headland and noticed men cycling towards me. Up ahead I noticed more men, swim-suited running towards their bikes. It became apparent I was against the tide of an iron man type triathlon. Further on I sat to watch the bustle and noticed a mother and daughter helping dad change into his cycling gear. That moved me. I could imagine them together later that evening infused with the taste of an exciting day shared. Simple love expressed.

The beach is stony and small. The stones are pink for the most part, or coral. The water is clear and feels so good on the skin. This is not Greece but it gives me the feeling of the tone of sea-side life as it might and has always been in places like this. Šibenik is up the coast from Greece.

We could not even pay for a cup of coffee here such was the generosity of our hosts. Mira laughed and her laughter reflected the sea and the shining stones that make the town. Once again I am living the dream!

I returned to where the men and women were drinking coffee and ordered myself one and let my gaze move with the people as they come and go. People I have become acquainted with. A man who had driven us to our show the night before and a piano maestro sit next to me. The driver had also just finished putting together the life’s work of Sibelius as a twenty year project. He shrugged and said ‘ it is good’.

Cave Echoes of Past, Present and Beyond

I stood looking out at the Galtee Mountains with Luke, a friend. He had not been home to Sydney since his children’s birth and now the haze of our once in a lifetime Irish summer was bringing the blue mountains to Tipperary. The mind wanders….

We had just emerged from the womb of the Mitchelstown Caves. Halls of stone and pillars of crystal were the scene for a night of music provided by Roisín O and her brilliant band and myself! The sound in the place is magnificent and just asks for music. Millions, hundreds of millions of year old formations blended with our mortal selves. I couldn’t help but think of the Tuatha De Danann who chose not to destroy the invaders because their blood would corrupt our sacred land. Instead they went underground and there they remain. Every now and again one emerges and marries giving us heroes like Cuchullainn son of Macha. I thought also of my father whose bones have been in the earth now for some twenty years.

It’s cool down there and damp. Steam rises as the songs are sung. I spoke of the ancients. The marriage of the sun to the earth and the stories we have inherited to keep that miracle in our hearts.  The music lasted for around two hours. It was a good time to emerge.

We walked eighty eight steps back up to the warm summers evening and Luke’s blue mountains. Kay is the mother of the land where the caves are. She is a grandmother with the heart of a goddess. Her house reminded me of my own grandmother’s house. She gave us tea before the show and shared her twinkling presence with us. Her presence reminded me of the women of our country. The women of my grandmothers’ time. She had a ready laugh and when she came down to the cave in her cardigan there was not a bother on her. She stayed the two hours in the damp chill as if this too was her house.

Mary Hickson made us laugh when we sat at Kay’s table before heading home. There is a certain sense of humour among country people that can access laughter from a random phrase and a look. My grandmother in Galway and her daughter my mother used to laugh helplessly over the phone over the simplest of things. I get it! Life is good.

Midsummer Magic

There is something great about being in the lashings of rain. When you are making theatre on a hill that has a feeling of sacred ritual about it it’s even better. Something good is bound to come out of it.

I am kneeling in a gap between furze bushes waiting for a signal from a woman with pure white hair and pale blue eyes. Behind me and further up the hill is a stone building. A circle open to the sky. Walls seven to ten feet deep. You enter through a doorway into a circular room – nowhere…somewhere in time and space. The wind is above us now and we are voices.

The people have come from Derry and Donegal to witness this work in the weather and in the land. They are joining us in holding a note as a background to a song…a cry really, a prayer maybe. We stand thinking of our people and the land; this place and our lives and what is to come.

This night of fleeting darkness
A blink in summers blooming
Still the imagination
Awake a newborn story
Awake divine potential
Awaken sense and healing
Awake the hearts agenda…..

More was sung in the language of the country. More humble and embracing. But we are human and everything counts and nothing matters. Hello we said to each other and Erla from Iceland sang ‘drink to me only with thine eyes.’

Then as we leave the place and descend the hill away across another hill a horse is drawn upon the earth with fire. Two, maybe three miles across. Huge! Four or five hours later the sun rose and we stood in the garden facing summer.

Grianán Aileach. Inis Eoin peninsula.